(Beyond Pesticides, August 23, 2016) “Fundamentally anti-consumer,” said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) of the new genetic engineered (GE) labeling bill signed into law by President Obama late last month. Senator Blumenthal’s frustration with the new legislation and its preemption of state-level laws such as Vermont and Connecticut’s led the Senator to announce he will be introducing a bill next session to repeal the divisive law.
After years of state-level ballot initiatives in California, Oregon, Washington State, and Colorado, which were defeated after the chemical industry poured millions of dollars into ad buys that played on consumer fears of higher prices at the check-out line, Maine and Connecticut took a stand for consumer’s right to know. While their legislation required trigger clauses to go into effect, Vermont’s was passed shortly after without such a clause, and withstood a legal challenge from the multinational food and chemical industry. Vermont’s law propelled industry to move its efforts to Congress, and the state’s legislation actually went into effect on July 1, 2016, as industry was still working to garner the necessary votes for its new DARK deal.
Pushed forward by Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Pat Roberts (R-KS), the new law has been characterized by its supporters as a compromise, and stronger than the original legislation, the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act (S.2621), which was dubbed the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act. However, the law as written does little to get consumers out of the DARK on whether the food in their grocery and convenience stores contains GE ingredients. The bill permits labels to be conveyed through a range of options that will not warn consumers — quick response (QR) codes, 800 numbers, websites and on-package labeling. This approach leaves low-income Americans at a disadvantage in receiving this information, as QR code labels require the use of a smartphone to read. Allowing food companies to decide how to label all but ensures they will work to misinform the public about their products; we have already seen big food links to websites that extol the safety of GE foods.
“As a consumer and a dad, I want to know what my family is eating,” said Senator Blumenthal to the Hartford Courant. “Websites, phone numbers and barcodes – nearly impossible to access while standing in a grocery aisle with a child – create cumbersome hurdles for consumers and fall far short of providing families what they need to make educated and informed choices about what they want to put on their dinner table.”
Further, the bill includes no mandatory standards for manufacturers. Instead, it preempts Vermont’s stronger, compulsory labeling law through a voluntary process that will likely be determined by the next President’s Secretary of Agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, a big supporter of genetically engineered food production, will have two years to develop the standard, during which time it will assess the question of equitable access to the disclosure of ingredients.
Leading up to the Senate vote on the DARK compromise between Senators Stabenow and Roberts, Senator Blumenthal introduced amendments that would have preserved state laws like Connecticut and Vermont’s, and allowed additional states to pass laws that reflect the will of their citizens. “Because, at the end of the day, it should be up to consumers whether they choose to purchase food containing GMOs not food giants or big business,” said Senator Blumenthal in a Press Release.
Despite favorable public opinion to labeling GE foods, repeal legislation is likely to encounter strong headwinds in Congress. Senator Blumenthal is anticipating that new members of the Senate elected this November will be willing to revisit the issue, according to CT Mirror. “Consumers can vote with their feet and their pocketbook even if their elected representatives are not voting as they would like,” he told CT Mirror. “Every survey of public opinion shows that the American people want this information.”
While the latest developments are a set-back for pro-labeling efforts, consumers can indeed follow Senator Blumenthal’s suggestion and vote for their right to know at the ballot box and the check-out line. Check whether your Representative or Senator voted for the DARK deal (disregard the title of the bill to reauthorize National Sea Grant Colleges — the legislation was amended onto an older bill), and consider their decision when you head to the ballot box in November. In the supermarket, vote with your food dollars by purchasing organic foods whenever possible. Even with GE labeling, the answer to the presence of GE ingredients is not to switch to a product that is only non-GE. While those products do not contain genetically modified ingredients, they may still be grown with toxic pesticides and sewage sludge, or irradiated before purchase. Only by buying certified organic products can you be certain that your food was grown in a way that is healthy for you, and safer for the planet.
For more information on GE labeling and the dangers associated with GE agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides program page. And for the details on how certified organic is the right choice for your family and the environment, see our webpage on Why Organic.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.